*Intro*Privilege walk n. - A clever game devised to raise consciousness, to help people apply abstract concepts to their lives, to their classrooms and workshop spaces. It all begins by standing shoulder-to-shoulder in a row down the middle of an empty room (If you wanna make it more intense, the participants can also hold hands). One person reads off of a list, commanding the others to step forward if ___ (fill in the blank with any given marker of privilege) and to step backwards if they experience x, y, or z instance of oppression. The object is for everyone to take at least one step forward and at least one step backwards. The object is to see how these looming concepts intersect with your experiences. The object is to illustrate how both privilege and oppression apply to all of us, but also to highlight how we experience them differently than other people. Differently from people we already relate to.
So I’ve done a privilege walk or two in my life. Hell, I’ve led a couple. Each time I’ve found it captivating, scary, enlightening, and surprising. Each time I realize I know much more than the last but not nearly enough somehow. It wasn’t until my last privilege walk though, that I got a little hurt in the process.
*The real thing*Tables eked familiarly across the hard wood floors of the tiny one-room cabin, where I had participated in this exact exercise weeks before. Arriving late but feeling none-the-less prepared, I nestled myself in-between a queeny man and the straightest, blonde I know.
As we began, the game unfolded itself similarly to before, which is to say that I found myself in the back quarter of the room almost immediately but with some company.
A dainty hand tugged on my own a little less with each question, transforming the knowledge of belonging to marginalized categories into the feeling of being left behind. From the beginning I had accepted that it was only a manner of time before I let go of her finely manicured hand. She tried harder than I did to keep contact, taking progressively smaller steps forward until the impending fracture was inescapable.
As the questions grew harder, the flamboyant one on my left was in lock step with me, our bodies shifting uncomfortably as we watched the rest of the class approach the front wall one declaration of security and virginity at a time.
Step backward if you have ever been put in a position to lie about your sexual identity out of fear. We flashed one another an uneasy smile as our feet shuffled in reverse. Comradery felt like our fleshy palms greeting one another warmly.
Step forward if your parents told you that you could be anything you wanted to be. The fissure between us began with a hot wave of shame accompanying my stillness in the face of twenty unhesitating steps. That wasn’t a revelation, but damned if I needed the reminder.
Take a step forward if your parents graduated from college. Another moment of feeling the harness of my past burden me. I thought about stepping anyway, but couldn’t bring myself to lie. I had noticed that any given student had parents who were in medical school or went to far-flung places on business trips, but the cumulative effect of the word “professionals” had not come to bear on my mind yet. My vein attempt to conjure an image of childhood in the context of office jobs and grad placement was interrupted by the nagging sensation that I was loosing grip with the last warm body in my vicinity.
There were a thousand small injuries that more-or-less nicked the surface of my armor that day. They were tiny charges of fear, ounces of memories I’d rather not been subjected to, but all-in-all they were things I knew, things I had dealt with, things I may even have been able to admit. But the questions kept placing us further and further apart. Two separate times the entire class had to take a couple steps back in order to afford more space to those whose noses pressed up against the front wall of the room.
By this point, he and I were several steps behind the others, knowing that two outstretched fingertips stood between us and the obscure form of loneliness that came from participating in a private education that didn’t belong to us. It was as if we hoped that by virtue of extending ourselves we could ward off that moment when one of us would leave the other behind for the last time. No one else would know if we let go. But we would.
Take a step forward if there were more than fifty books in the house that you grew up in. I froze. A sharp intake of breath later, he was gone. Really, they all had fifty books? It suddenly occurred to me that I had never seen my mother read any book. Ever. Surely, I was exaggerating. I searched my mind desperately, probed for instances of newspapers or pop science magazines, on that day even a cheesy romance novel could have been my salvation.
How did I even know she could read? I mean, I’ve always assumed it, but truthfully, is there anything in my mother’s life that would be different, if she were illiterate. I scanned through the list of things I watch her do: carpentry, plumbing, sketching, fixing stuff, cooking- not a single word-centered activity I could think of. I panicked. What if she was?
The space between my mother and I suddenly took on geometrically large proportions. This place I chose to spend so much of my time, her money, and my good credit on suddenly became a symbol of all the things I loved that she never would understand. It wasn’t just that she had never been to college, that she never was given the luxury of space and time to figure out what mattered to her, that she hadn’t been taught what to do with it even if she had ended up with it.
I realized that my mother’s never read a book that changed her life. I’d grow out of it, she told me growing up. Here I was growing into academia, growing into queer theory departments and primary research. Here I was growing into my conferences and workshops, growing into my multicultural education class. Growing into someone she never had the chance to become.